New Delhi, February 11: The Supreme Court on Wednesday stayed a Delhi high court order that had directed private and government schools to provide electronic gadgets to poor students for online classes and to get the cost of equipment reimbursed from the Delhi government, under the Right to Education (RTE) Act.

The high court directions had come on a PIL filed by NGO, Justice for All. The petitioner had prayed that a free laptop or mobile phone with high-speed internet be provided to students of EWS/disadvantaged groups who could not attend the virtual classes for want of these gadgets, unlike their well-off counterparts. The petitioners had argued that financial barrier should not be an impediment to the goal of right to free education as guaranteed by the RTE Act.

The high court decision of September 18, 2020, was challenged by the Delhi government and the Central government before the Supreme Court.

On Wednesday, issuing notice to the NGO Justice For All, on the two pleas, a three-judge bench headed by Chief Justice SA Bobde said, “In the meantime, there shall be a stay on the operation of the impugned order of the high court,” the Hindustan Times reported.

Senior advocate Vikas Singh, who appeared for the Delhi government, told the apex court that the government was already reeling under a fiscal stress created by the pandemic. The high court decision added to that burden, Singh said. He also pointed out that the order required to be stayed as private, unaided schools were given the freedom to recover the amount spent from the Delhi government.

The bench, also comprising justices AS Bopanna and V Ramasubramanian, said, “We realise that it will be an additional burden.”

The high court order had said, “Elementary education is now a fundamental human right as well as an enabling right and, every child, irrespective of his/her financial status is guaranteed the right to free and compulsory education.” It went on to direct private unaided schools and government schools such as the Kendriya Vidyalayas to supply gadgets or equipment of optimum configuration as well as internet packages to EWS/DG students to enable them access online classes.

The order noted that Section 8(d) of the RTE Act put an obligation on the state to provide infrastructure, including learning equipment, to children. The court further held that the digital equipment should be provided free of cost to students and the cost for the same would be reimbursed by the state in accordance with Section 12(2) of the RTE Act.

Terming the divide created among students by the lack of digital equipment as “digital apartheid”, the high court even went on to advise the Central government to seriously consider investing in digital literacy and infrastructure and to increase its education budget from the current spend of 4.43% of the gross domestic product (GDP).

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